Pressure’s on. I can tell from the silence in the meeting that something is up. There is no how’s-your-weekend chat-chit and everyone slowly looks at each other wondering about the source of the suspense. I write the agenda on the whiteboard knowing that we’re likely not doing anything on this agenda because….
… there’s a Situation.
At some point during the past 24 hours, someone discovered the Situation. It arrived unexpectedly during a random conversation. It was delivered by a human who didn’t even know they were describing a Situation, they were just the Situation carrier, but when Mateo heard it, he thought, “Smells like a Situation.”
Mateo immediately took the situation over to Erica for triage. “Situation, right?” he asked.
“Does this mean that?” probed Erica.
“Yes,” said Mateo definitively.
“World-class situation. Circle the wagons. You’re going to need a bigger boat situation. Alert the troops,” Erica confirmed.
Mateo triangulated the Situation with others to triple check its Situation-ness which is why when our staff meeting starts, no one is saying a thing. They all know about the Situation and they know when it’s a verified alert-the-troops Situation, you bring it to me because as a leader Situations are my job.
I sit in my chair. I count to three. I ask, “So, what’s up?”
Mateo glances at the agenda that will never be, shrugs, and says, “Before we start, I think we have a Situation.”
“Describe it,” I instruct.
Mateo walks through his findings and analysis. It takes seven and a half minutes and he stops to let everyone process. Beth, my second, offers a solution to the Situation and it’s pretty good, but Mateo quickly points out, “This… “ he pauses for effect “… means that.”
“Shit,” says Beth as she falls back in her chair. Beth never swears.
37 seconds pass before I ask three questions of Mateo. “If this means that, does that mean this?” Yes. “Every time?” Yes, that was the first thing I confirmed and I confirmed it three times. “Did that happen when we attempted this other thing?” No.
“Ok, I’ve made a decision. This is what we’re going to do.”
Everyone sighed in relief, cool air suddenly filled the room, the angels sang. and I asked, “Ok, what’s next?”
Yeah… it never happens like this.
Capital S Situations
Ok, it happens like this in some situations, but never for capital-S Situations. For small situations that cross my desk, inbox, and Slack, I can dip into my experience, apply my judgment, and create a solid decision. Need justification for that decision? No problem, here’s the story I’ve told 14 times that explains the means by which I gathered the experience to create the judgment I use in this particular situation. I am happy to tell you this story because this is how we collectively get better at our jobs, we share our experiences because it’s way cheaper than everyone experiencing everything.
For Capital S Situations, there’s no easy answer. A Situation is a complicated never-seen-before beast and the reason that everyone in the room is energetically quiet is that they’ve never seen this before and they’re wondering what the hell is going to happen.
The following laborious workflow is how I make a decision regarding the Situation. Not every situation demands all steps. Some steps are repeated multiple times. The route through these steps varies as a function of both the Situation as well as the facts, opinions, and lies I discover as I take each step.
- Am I the right person to handle this Situation? Is this truly my responsibility to solve? No? Ok, who is the right Situation handler? Have I triangulated the facts? Have I discovered multiple different perspectives regarding the Situation? What has happened to the facts as I’ve looked at them through different lenses? What has this triangulation told me about my sources of information?
Do I have complete context? For this given situation, do I have all the essential facts, opinions, and lies surrounding the situation? Have all relevant, affected, and interested parties who care about the Situation weighed in?
What is the track record of my sources of information? Do I trust the sources of information? If I have a track record with these humans, how does that color the information they provided? Do I understand the nature of the biases of those providing the information? Am I clear what they have to lose or gain by sharing this information? Do they volunteer these losses or gains as part of my discovery?
What inconsistencies in facts have been discovered and do I understand the nature of those inconsistencies? I’m not looking for resolution for inconsistencies, just the nature. He and she disagree on principle. He didn’t have all the essential facts so it kind’a looks like he’s lying.
Do I understand my biases relative to the Situation? If my role in this Situation is to make a decision, part of understanding involves understanding my bias1. With this understanding of bias in hand, am I still the right person to make an informed call here?
Do I understand my emotional state relative to the issue at hand? A sure-fire way to bias my judgment is emotion. Like bias, it is nigh impossible to separate my emotions from an issue, whether those emotions are positive, negative 2, or a bit of both. Am I clear how emotion is affecting me relative to this decision? If it’s affecting me negatively, will cool-down time help? No, ok, who is a better neutral party who can make a decision here?
A close to final test for me is: Can I coherently explain multiple perspectives of the Situation? What happens when I explain one perspective of the Situation to a neutral party? How about when I explain the competing perspective? If I can effectively explain the Situation and its complexity from both perspectives and with a distinct lack of emotion, I’m close.
Capital D Decisions
When a Situation shows up, it’s full of energy. The humans are enthusiastically swirling around it wondering “Where did it come from?”, “How’d we miss this?”, and “What are we going to do?” Don’t interpret this energy as momentum. The collective impression the prior seven laborious steps are designed to convey is “patience”. Because the Situation arrives with great urgency doesn’t always mean you must act with great urgency.
There are humans who are world class at real-time Situation-based decisions. They stare straight into the Situation and make a call right then. Their track record indicates either superior judgment or perhaps incredible luck.
I’d rather be good than lucky.
- Easy to write, hard to do. If you want to blow your mind regarding biases, here’s Wikipedia’s comprehensive and mind-boggling list of biases. Start reading and tell me how long until you realize, “Uh, I do that, and I didn’t know I did that.” ↩
- I know this: I have horrific judgment when I’m mad. I’m chock full of energy and poor judgment and no matter how good it feels to jump to the absolutely right decision at the moment. I’m wrong. I’m very wrong. Every time. ↩